In the two weeks leading up to the Big Ten Championship Game, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald prepared for the possibility of playing either Michigan or Ohio State.
After reviewing film of both teams, he had no desire to play either.
But now that Saturday’s matchup with the Buckeyes is a reality, the work really begins.
As a defensive coach Fitzgerald first looks at the Ohio State offense and what they were able to do last week against Michigan’s top-ranked defense. He saw a Buckeye juggernaut that had answers for everything the Wolverines tried.
He also saw a very fast Ohio State team.
How much of a concern is that team speed?
“Um, huge. I’m not gonna lie,” Fitzgerald said this week. “It’s an incredibly talented football team. And Coach [Ryan] Day did a phenomenal job and the offensive staff getting into formation variations and running different mesh concepts and taking advantage of Michigan’s aggressive press man. Dwayne [Haskins] made some big-time throws. The line protected really, really well against that defensive front of Michigan. It was really impressive to watch. Yep, we’ve got our hands full.”
Speed is just one aspect of the Buckeyes that concerns Fitzgerald, however.
“They’re massive up front on the offensive line,” he said. “The skill positions on offense, everybody’s a guy that can score by catching a hitch or a slant. [JK] Dobbins and [Mike] Weber can take it to the house by missing a tackle. Dwayne Haskins is as efficient and explosive of a quarterback as we’ve seen. Almost throwing 70%, 41 touchdowns, seven interceptions, that ratio is just absolutely incredible.”
While speaking on Monday’s teleconference along with OSU head coach Urban Meyer, Fitzgerald was able to rattle off Ohio State’s roster like an excited fan, but with the tenor of a concerned coach.
“The tight ends jump out to me too,” he added. “I’ve been really impressed with [Luke] Farrell and [Rashod] Berry. They both are very, very impressive on video.”
Of course, being a former All-American linebacker, Fitzgerald also found some time to look at the defensive side of the ball for the Buckeyes. The first thing that jumped out at him is the first thing that jumps out at everybody.
“On defense, this front is big, they’re physical, they’re athletic,” he said. “[Chase] Young and [Robert] Landers, [Dre’Mont] Jones, [Jonathon] Cooper, and then they roll their second wave through. Really dynamic, explosive.”
While the Ohio State defense hasn’t exactly been stellar this season, there is enough on tape to keep Fitzgerald and his offensive staff busy. There are also some familiar faces for him as well.
“The linebacker corps – we knew Tuf [Borland] in recruiting, a local kid here in the Chicagoland,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s a heck of a football player. Got to know Pete Werner also in recruiting. [Malik] Harrison to me is really athletic. They do some fun stuff [with Harrison]. I love what Coach [Greg] Schiano is doing schematically.”
Some of what Schiano has done has raised eyebrows among Ohio State fans, but Fitzgerald sees what the scheme is supposed to be doing. And with the talent on hand, why Schiano would lean toward doing it.
“The back end is all NFL talent,” he said. “It’s elite-level guys. It’s a younger group than maybe we saw a couple of years ago, and they’re really long, they’re really athletic, and they are obviously very, very talented.”
But then like a true Big Ten football coach, it all comes back to special teams.
“You watch the kick game and that’s where the depth of the talent jumps out to you,” he said. “They’re fast and physical in every unit. The punt game is ridiculous. You watch that Michigan State game and [Drue] Chrisman won that game with the execution.”
And after after essentially breaking down the entire Ohio State starting lineup by answering a reporter who simply asked “What concerns you about Ohio State?” Fitzgerald went back to something he repeated throughout the teleconference.
“We’re going to have our hands full,” he said. “We’re going to have our hands full.”